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I'm from Houston, a graduate of the University of Texas, a fan of the Houston Astros and Houston Texans. But this blog will be about the "greater sports", whatever that means.

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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2014 National Baseball Hall of Fame Vote

On Wednesday, January 8, 2014, the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) vote for the 2014 Major League Baseball Hall of Fame will be revealed. Holding the keys to such an elite fraternity must be a daunting task. You're voting on players to proverbially sit next to Ruth, Aaron, Mays, Mathewson and the like.

Click here for the list of 2014 candidates

The pervasive theme the past several years remains the specter of performance enhancing drugs that infiltrated the league during the so called "Steroid Era". On the bubble now are the first generation "users", ones that presumably were clean earlier in their career but found a "fountain of youth" late which contributed significantly to jaw-dropping numbers.  Many, by all counts, were no doubt Hall of Famers before their transgressions.  But how do you handle this?  In my opinion, with little mercy.

If I were asked to vote (and of course I believe I should be), below reflects my ballot.  It looks very similar to last years' ballot, since nobody got in.  Except with the new bumper crop of first time candidates. The players on the ballots these days usually span my late childhood through young adulthood. I watched and attended a lot of games and have memories of all these players. I don't think I would be alone in allowing my personal (but not biased) "feeling" about a player influence the vote. What I mean by that is, when this player came to the plate or pitched, what was my feeling of how they would perform? Did they always seem to get the big hit, pitch their team to victory, make the heartbreaking defensive play, etc.?  Were they a feared entity anytime they stepped between the lines?

This years crop features one 3000 hit club member, three 300 win club members, four 500 HR club members, another three with 400 HR.

Players I would put on my ballot (in order of credibility) 

1) Greg Maddux - The whisper around media circles is that Maddux "may" be a unanimous vote.  It just takes one to not vote for him so I'm guessing that won't be the case.  But 355 wins, 3.16 ERA, 4 Cy Young Awards, 18 Gold Gloves, 6 All-Star games, and a World Series Championship are a strong resume.  Probably the greatest pitcher of his generation (Clemens could argue, although his career seemed to resurge about the time he was accused of using PEDs).

Factors against him: 11-14 in Postseason play, "only" one World Series title, .610 winning percentage is middle of the pack for Hall of Fame candidate pitchers

Maddux will get in with somewhere between 92% and 98% of the vote.

2) Tom Glavine - One of three 300 win club candidates (with Maddux and Clemens), a five-time 20-game winner (Maddux only twice), two Cy Young Awards, and 10 All-Star games (more than Maddux).  He also won a World Series (with Maddux) in 1995, there just aren't a lot of holes in the resume.

Factors against him: 14-16 in Postseason play, "only" one World Series title (sound familiar).  A .600 winning percentage and mediocre ERA (as compared to other greats) at 3.54

Glavine will likely get in, I don't think that much above 80%.

3) Craig Biggio - The biggest cred Biggio brings is his membership in the 3,000 hit club.  Only Rafael Palmiero (positive PED test), Derek Jeter (still active, sure-fire first ballot) and Pete Rose (lifetime ban from the game) are members of that club, but not the Hall of Fame.  His batting average (.281 lifetime) or power numbers (291 home runs) won't wow you, but another feather in his cap is playing three (defensively challenging) positions as a regular in his career (C, CF, 2B).  He also has seven All-Star nods, three Top 10 MVP finishes, and four Gold Gloves.  Finished his career 5th in doubles all time. 

Factors against him: Ordinary batting average, playing in a small market, lack of postseason success

There may have been some that didn't vote him first ballot in principle, with 68.2% of the ballot in his debut, he's likely to get the nod right near 78%.

4) Mike Piazza - He is probably the best power hitting catcher in history not named Johnny Bench.  He smacked 427 career home runs and a .308 batting average while playing all but 70 games behind the plate.  Both those numbers far exceed Bench (albeit in a different era).  He played in 14 All-Star games (over a 15-year span) and finished in the Top 10 in MVP voting seven times. 

Factors against him: Perceived use of PEDs, below-average defensively

Piazza got 57.8% of the vote in his ballot debut, with the PED suspicions, I don't expect that to bump up significantly, his numbers are clearly worthy, those voting against PEDs won't budge.

5) Frank Thomas - The Big Hurt was big when he came into the league, and wasn't just about power, with a career .301 average.  I mention big when he came into the league, because he's largely escaped any PED accusations (and even criticized heavily those who used).  He got to the 500 career home run plateau (521) and had a .419 career OBP with 1704 career RBI.  He was a 2-time MVP and made five All-Star games.  The numbers are there.

Factors against him: Never played in a World Series, and voters sometimes do not like to vote in big offensive numbers for a player who accumulated them as a DH (his last season over 90 games at 1B he was 29 years old).

Thomas was very popular with the media, his peers, and fans.  He may be close to the cut off because of the deep ballot and because of the first-time voter bias.  I think he gets in around 80% of the ballot.

6) Jeff Bagwell - He was an offensive machine in the mid-1990's, career numbers reflect that (.297, 449, 1529 RBI). Only Palmeiro, Bonds, Sosa, Thomas, and McGriff on the ballot have more RBI. More walks than anyone else on the ballot besides Thomas and Bonds (fear factor and eye), .409 OBP. He also stole 200 bases and was an above average 1B (Gold Glove in the closet). No hard evidence of PED's, he was a weight-lifting machine and didn't see anything late in his career that would lead one to believe he was juicing.

Factors against him: Perceived use of PEDs, playing in a small market, lack of postseason success.

He moved from 41% of the vote in his first year to 56% in year two to 60% last year.  He seems to be trending up, but 15% more would be a stretch.  I think he hits low 60% this year and languishes.

7) Larry Walker - He was another 5-tool player, finished his career with a .313 batting average, higher than anyone else on the ballot.  Let me repeat that, highest batting average of anybody on the ballot. Also stole 200 bases, also hit 383 home runs. He has so many gold gloves he probably had to build an extra wing on his trophy case. Like Bagwell, he won one MVP. He's also a member of the .400 OBP club (he, Bagwell, Thomas, Bonds, and Edgar Martinez the only four on the ballot).

Factors against him: Perceived higher numbers due to Colorado, soft-spoken personality, injury-prone (only 4 seasons of 140+ games).

He only received 22% of the vote last year (regressing), that needs to trend up significantly for people to start noticing.  I don't think it will.

8) Edgar Martinez - He's of the mold of the previous two players. Hit for high average, good (but not awe inspiring) power, gets on base all the time. While I am not a fan of the DH, if MLB has it as a position, you can't hold that against him. With the previous two, defense pushes their case, for Edgar it can't but he still deserves it. Career .312 hitter, .418 OBP, slugged .515 (more than McGriff). He's also a member of the 300 HR club for a guy who didn't try to lift the ball as much as others.

Factors against him: Primarily a DH, played in small market, lack of speed.

He was voted for the affirmative on 36% of last years ballots flat year-over-year.  He needs to get closer to 50% to continue the momentum, now in his fifth year and not moving much.

9) Lee Smith - The Hall of Fame is still figuring out how to accommodate closers, it's my opinion that they are indeed a key element to the game and the best of the best should be included. With Smith, it's not about the numbers (ERA, W-L) as much as the raw pile of saves he accumulated. No matter where he played, he never seemed phase by a momentary lapse of success. Fourteen seasons in a row of 25 or more saves shows a level of consistency matched by few. If there are going to be closers in the HoF, Smith should be there.

Factors against him: Voters don't trend toward closers, wasn't overpowering, lacks team identity.

Received 47.8% of the vote last year, is trending flat or down in his 12th year.  Half the people isn't enough!

10) Jeff Kent - Quietly one of the top offensive second basemen of all time.  His line across the major stats is .290, 377, and 1518.  He has an MVP in his closet, and three other Top 10 finishes.  Add to that six All-Star appearances.  His numbers dwarf Ryne Sandberg and Roberto Alomar, there's no reason he shouldn't get the vote eventually.

Factors against him: Very average on defense, played in a power era in which his home run numbers aren't considered extraordinary. He was also very cold with the media, just didn't like that part of his job.

I think he will probably follow the Bagwell trajectory, getting near 50% the first few years as his legacy is more discussed and people realize how strong his offensive production really was.

First four out

11) Tim Raines - Rock falls just short on the numbers. Besides SB's (of which he is more than deserving), his average and power are lackluster, no Gold Gloves. He did accumulate the most hits of anyone on the ballot (besides Palmeiro, Bonds, and Biggio) playing to the age of 40.

Factors against him: Played in Montreal during his prime, average defense, never was higher than 5th in an MVP vote, not a feared hitter.

At 52.2% now in his seventh year, he made a decent 4% leap last year, but can the momentum continue?

12) Mike Mussina - Without 300 wins, I have trouble putting Moose on my first ballot.  No Cy Young Awards, a one-time 20 game winner, five All-Star games.  Career ERA is 3.68, again, higher than his peers discussed above.  I might come around, but first ballot is way too soon.

Factors against him: Doesn't have 300 wins, wasn't THAT dominant (ERA mediocre), played on winning teams but never won a World Series.

13) Jack Morris - He was a gamer who was consistent, just not consistently great. A three-time 20-game winner, but 3.90 ERA shows me he outlasted a lot of opponents for those wins instead of dominating them. Never had an ERA below 3.05 in a single season. I probably hold starting pitchers to the highest standard when considering Hall of Fame, if you start to take 250 game winners and folks with ERA's near 4.00, you start to let in a lot of slightly better than average pitchers.

Factors against him: ERA, lack of dominating presence, allowed a lot of baserunners (WHIP).

At 67.7% last year, it's 50/50 whether or not that last ballot mojo carries him.  I lean toward it not.

14) Fred McGriff - You can't ignore the near 500 home runs, but he hung on a while to get so close and wasn't elite enough in his prime to warrant the Hall. Average defense, below average speed, not an outstanding OBP. He also never broke 110 RBI in a season.

Factors against him: Low average, lack of dominating seasons, lack of speed.

At only 20.7% last year, he had a drop from the year before. Numbers are inferior when compared to the seven hitters I would vote in, I doubt many voters put 8 hitters on their ballot given the talent.  He may fall off the ballot.

The remaining repeat candidates fall into two categories, steroid specter or double digit ballot opportunities, the numbers aren't there.

Steroid specter (stats more than deserving, even before they might have juiced, but would not get my vote): Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, and Mark McGwire
Vets with short stats: Alan Trammell, Don Mattingly, Curt Schilling
Newcomers that might stay on the ballot: Moises Alou, Luis Gonzalez

Much discussion of the 10 vote limit, those who want to vote in PED users (for legit reasons, they're not banned from the game, baseball didn't do it's job, I get it) will certainly hurt those guys who are close (Edgar, Biggio, Bagwell, McGriff, Kent) and might be enough to keep them out.  But with a 15 year window, the bubble will get through and if you're deserving, you will eventually get the call.

Sportsman of the Week Ending 12/29/2013

It was a very busy football week, with NFL playoff push coming to an end and the first round of college football bowl games.  We lean toward the latter and an 18-year-old freshman running back that led his team to an upset in the Little Caesar's Bowl.  Pittsburgh Panthers RB James Conner toted the rock 26 times for 229 yards and a touchdown, as the favored Mid-American Conference Champion Bowling Green Falcons had no answer.  Conner had 26 carries one game before, another big win against the Duke Blue Devils (that game 173 yards).  Conner shows up for big games, and the Panthers coaching staff will enjoy his performances another three years, or if he turns pro.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

2013 BCS vs. Playoff analysis, which would be the most fair?

Have you ever heard the expression "be careful what you wish for?"  This season, college football narrowly avoided much more controversy than it ended up with in the BCS Championship Game, in which there are few doubts that the two teams belong and should be playing for a title.  A few weeks ago, I analyzed how a four-team, and eight-team would have stacked up with the BCS (two-team) playoff the past three seasons, and four-team did the worst (as measured by controversy of excluding teams and being the most equitable) as compared to two-team and eight-team.  I think 2013 would have just piled on that conclusion.

For reference, here were the final BCS Standings (recognizing these won't be used exclusively going forward, but provide some reference to how teams rank in human and computer polls).
Final BCS Standings Top 10
1. Florida State (13-0) .9957
2. Auburn (12-1) .9638
3. Alabama (11-1) .9061
4. Michigan State (12-1) .8600
5. Stanford (11-2) .8191
6. Baylor (11-1) .7722
7. Ohio State (12-1) .7705
8. Missouri (11-2) .7256
9. South Carolina (10-2) .7152
10. Oregon (10-2) .5811

Nobody can argue Florida State, as the only undefeated team in college football, is the clear #1 seed no matter what playoff system we use. 

Few are arguing that Auburn isn't the clear #2.  As much as Alabama wants to argue they have style points over the whole season, a win on the field prevails and Auburn is the best one-loss team (despite a 2 TD loss earlier in the season).

The BCS gave us a clear-cut two teams, will we be
as lucky to avoid controversy next year?

Now things get more complicated.  The next five teams are either a one-loss conference champion (Michigan State, Baylor), a one-loss non-champ to a team above them (Ohio State and Alabama), or a two-loss Stanford team that played the toughest schedule (according to Sagarin, all SOS going forward will reference this).

The case for each:
Alabama - one loss in the last second, on the road, to a rival.  Despite playing in the SEC, the out of conference schedule wasn't too challenging, plus they played the two worst teams from the East (Kentucky and Tennessee), leading to a 46th overall strength-of-schedule.  The team only played four road games (lost to Auburn, great game at Texas A&M, then easy wins at Mississippi State and Kentucky).  They more than passed the eye test by only allowing more than 17 points twice (Texas A&M and Auburn).  They seemingly put up points with ease when they needed to, but didn't register video game numbers like others.
Alabama but for one play would be playing
for their third straight title

Michigan State - Nobody was talking about this team all year, because of their conference rival Ohio State's seemingly foregone conference title.  The Spartans struggled early in the season with offense, but found a rhythm late, including plenty against the Buckeyes.  Michigan State's SOS is 56, but not real big wins outside of the Big 10 Conference Championship Game.  Their only loss was narrow (and low scoring) at Notre Dame, oh to have that game back.  This team isn't big on the eye test, but the win over OSU helps (see a theme here).  Their biggest win BESIDES that one would probably have to be, uhhhh, Iowa?

Michigan State finally got a signature win against
the Ohio State Buckeyes to win the Big 10
Stanford - Two losses is the condemning factor here.  But they won the Pac 12, the highest rated conference according to Sagarin.  And finished with the 4th toughest schedule in the country, far and away the best in the BCS Top 10 (Auburn #20 is closest).  Their biggest win was Oregon, then Arizona State twice, UCLA, and Notre Dame (much better than Michigan State down the line).  Oh but the two losses, both on the road by a combined 9 points, but to enigma USC (forgivable) and then Utah (unforgivable).  Without the Utah loss I think it's clear cut.  With it, I have trouble putting them above the stiff competition discussed here.  They eye test is solid, when they're good, they look like they could beat anybody.

Stanford danced all over tough competition, but lost
to a bad Utah team
Ohio State - After Auburn beat Alabama, the Buckeyes had the inside track to the BCS Championship Game.  Then lost (and was really beaten) by the above Michigan State.  With a similar SOS to Michigan State (#57), they fit the same bill.  An impressive win against Wisconsin, but after that, once again, Iowa looks like their best quality opponent.  And they almost lost to Michigan but for a 2-point conversion stop.  The eye test is what carries them, lots of athletes on the field and they can score with ease.  Suspect defense causes some trepidation if they were to play a team like FSU or Auburn.

Ohio State has the same problem as Alabama, wrong
loss at the wrong time to lose the conference

Baylor - Nobody gives the Bears near as much credit for their 11-1 run vs. the above resumes.  Maybe it's their SOS at 61, the worst among the group.  But they did win their conference (two of the above didn't).  Their loss was the ugliest of the lot, blown out (and exposed) on the road to Oklahoma State in a game that was never close.  Their most impressive wins were blowout wins over Texas and Oklahoma (who would have thought we would be saying that ten years ago).  The eye test is valid, they put up points in a hurry and can run or pass and play better defense than given credit for.  It's just a matter of how much one bad day penalizes you.

The high-flying Big 12 Champ Bears resume may not
stack up against other conference champs
So two of these five would make the four-team playoffIf it's conference titles you lean toward then it's two of Michigan State, Stanford, and Baylor.  If you want the best eye test, it's probably Stanford and Alabama.  If you want the best TV ratings or fans that travel, it's probably Alabama and Ohio State.  If you're drinking the SEC punch, it's Alabama and Missouri (or South Carolina).

What I think the committee would do: Add Alabama and Michigan State.  Stanford's two losses eliminate them, and Baylor's SOS eliminates them.  Ohio State can't get in over Michigan State and wouldn't over Alabama.  The committee keeps sword-rattling that SOS is important, though, would that carry Stanford?  Either way, tough questions for the committee at the presser after the decision was made.

What I would do: All conference champions.  Stanford is in because of SOS in the best conference.  Then Michigan State because of closer loss (than Baylor) and slightly better best win (Ohio State vs. Oklahoma).

Who I think are the best four teams in the nation: Florida State, Auburn, Alabama, and Stanford.

It will be interesting who the committee reconciles that.

If there were an eight team playoff, who I would add: Story for another blog.  Next two up are Missouri and South Carolina, the latter beat the former, but the former won the SEC East.  Would also be a third SEC team, is that fair?  Oregon suffered a BAD loss to Arizona.  Off that Top 10 is Oklahoma (ugly losses to Texas and Baylor).  And American Athletic Conference Champion Central Florida, just one loss, but to the aforementioned South Carolina.  I'd just give FSU a first round bye.  But if I had to pick, South Carolina by virtue of head-to-head over Missouri (and quality out-of-conference wins vs. Central Florida, ACC powerhouse Clemson, and bowl participant North Carolina in addition to an SEC schedule).

How would this Eight-team playoff look to you?

So going back to the rankings I gave the fairness of the systems in the previous blog
BCS: A (not perfectly clear, but pretty close)
4-team: C- (there are good teams not in)
8-team: B- (just the eighth team is hard to rectify).

As I said, be careful what you wish for.  Anybody who thinks a four-team playoff will be better may not have thought it through.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Sportsman of the Week Ending 12/22/2013

Not often a kicker stars above and beyond all other Sportsmen (and Sportswomen) but this week is an exception.  Justin Tucker of the Baltimore Ravens single-handedly kicked his team back into playoff contention by connecting on six field goals, the last over 60 yards as time expired, to lift the Ravens to an improbable 18-16 victory over the Detroit Lions (putting a dagger in their post-season hopes).  Tucker connected from 29, 24, 32, 49, 53, then 61 as the clock expired.  Totaling 248 yards (and roughly 23 fantasy points), Tucker gets the nod for Longhorndave Sportsman of the Week!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Six Keys to picking the 2013-14 Bowl season (and BCS Title Game Preview)

Beginning today, there will be 35 Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision Bowl games in 16 days as the 2013-2014 College Football season ends with a flourish.  All the games are more or less set up to match similarly talented teams, giving analysts a field day in their predictions.  Much like March Madness, experts and novices alike love to fill out their bowl picks, compare, contrast, cheer for teams they've never cheered for before, and maybe gamble a little money in the process.  Well if it's gambling, then J.R. Ewing (that's me) has you covered.  Here we look at six major factors that don't usually figure into picking regular season games, analyze the BCS Championship Game in Pasadena, then go into a Top 5 "Best Bets."  Remembering that this year is the before a four-team playoff begins next season.

1. How did we end up here?

When the dust settles and bowl invitations are distributed, there's always a few teams excited at the opportunity, and more than a few who didn't want to be there.  Whether they lost a game they shouldn't have, or to a rival, or just got a raw deal, this factors into teams' performance.  Three teams that immediately come to mind in the latter category are the Ohio State Buckeyes, Alabama Crimson Tide, and Oregon Ducks.

Michigan State sent Ohio State to their first loss under
Urban Meyer
Ohio State was 60 minutes and a slight favorite to win the Big 10 Championship, but was upset in the title game by a tough Michigan State Spartans squad.  Interestingly, Michigan State was probably Pasadena-bound (Rose Bowl) win or lose,  But they won if nothing else to spoil their rivals hopes of a BCS Title game shot (Conference Title games are still a good idea, right)?  Now the Buckeyes are headed to the Orange Bowl in Miami instead to face a hungry Clemson Tigers team who just two years ago were humiliated in this same venue when they lost to West Virginia giving up 70 points.  On top of that, this is the first Ohio State loss in two years and the first under Urban Meyer.  Will they come out hungry?  I think not.  Despite being a two - three point favorite, I go with the Tigers (+115) straight up.

Alabama likewise were playing for their own fate to punch their ticket to Pasadena.  In fact, the were just an overtime away from an SEC title game berth as they saw their hopes slip away on that improbable 100+ yard field goal attempt return derail their push, this time, with no recovery with one-loss as in the past two years.  Now at home and stewing, how will they respond to a plain old Sugar Bowl berth against the Oklahoma Sooners?  Nick Saban has consistently coached this team to success after losses, twice to win National Championships after the season settled out.  Saban gets his teams attention after losses.  I look for the Tide to bounce back behind A.J. McCarron and easily cover the 15 points spread.

The biggest obstacle experts thought might keep Oregon from the BCS Championship Game were if there were too many undefeated teams.  Oregon should have kept their heads down and taken care of their own business, but suffered two defeats to the eventual Pac 12 Title game participants.  They looked attractive as a potential BCS at-large, but fell all the way to the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio to play an unranked (and lame duck coach, no pun intended) team in the Texas Longhorns.  How excited are they going to be after playing in the BCS for four straight seasons?  I'm not sure, nor am I sure how Texas will respond to their circumstances, so I'm calling the Alamo Bowl a "no play".

2. My Kingdom for a healthy QB

Despite the month or longer break to get healthy, several teams are without season-long starting quarterbacks headed into their bowl game.  The good news is that they have two full practice weeks to adjust their plays.  The bad news is that the other team gets two weeks to look at tape and perhaps throw in some defensive wrinkles to test that inexperience.  This is not as big a deal as you might expect, over one game, good QBs can play badly, mediocre QBs can excel.  Garrett Gilbert almost led the Longhorns to victory after Colt McCoy was hurt in the 2009 BCS Championship game.  Heisman winners Geno Toretta and Chris Weinke both pitched duds in title games.  So all is not lost, but three teams that fit this description are LSU, Georgia, and Texas Tech

The LSU Tigers will be without their NFL-bound QB
Zach Metternburger in the Outback Bowl
LSU senior QB, and NFL prospect Zach Mettenberger went down at the very end of the Tigers regular season finale against rival Arkansas.  Anthony Jennings jumped right in to lead the Tigers to a last minute thrilling victory.  LSU has talent all over the offensive field, particularly at skill positions.  They'll face an Iowa team in the Outback Bowl that is physically overmatched.  I expect Jennings to keep it steady and do just enough for the Tigers.  Against the 8 points, I'd probably take Iowa, but probably a "no play" on this one.

The Georgia Bulldogs lost the SEC's all time leading passer (yes, more than all Mannings, Tebows, Wuerffels) Aaron Murray to a knee injury late in the season.  The Bulldogs overcame a slow start to defeat rival Georgia Tech with Hutson Mason at the helm throwing for nearly 300 yards and 2 TD.  Now he faces an unsteady Nebraska defense that struggled to resemble the black shirts of years past.  Much like the LSU Tigers, I see Georgia winning but would probably see Nebraska covering.  Another "no play" here.

The Texas Tech Red Raiders started off the season 7-0 and a Top 10 ranking with what seemed (at the time) to be impressive wins against West Virginia and TCU.  Then they played the other five bowl teams from the Big 12 and lost all five all by a TD or more as West Virginia and TCU both scuffled to disappointing seasons.  While their QB for most the season, walk-on freshman Baker Mayfield, is healthy, he's seeking a transfer after rotating a lot during their final stretch of losses and feeling out of place in Lubbock.  There are two QBs in Kliff Kingsbury's stable, but it's not going to matter.  Pac 12 South winner Arizona State will roll over the Red Raiders in the Holiday Bowl.  Two touchdowns are not near enough, take the Sun Devils all the way to the bank!

3. Show me a QB with experience and I'll show you a winning QB.

A long delay between the final regular season (or conference title) game and the bowl game can lead to rust, uneven play, or mental mistakes in the bowl game.  These can steamroll quickly if not for on-field leadership to calm the tide.  I like experience QBs, particularly those playing in their final college game, as something reliable to play on in the bowl season.  Look no further than seasoned veterans John Manziel, A.J. McCarron, and Jordan Lynch.

Manziel led the Aggies to a laugher against OU
last year in the Cotton Bowl
John Manziel, a.k.a. Johnny Football, has only played two season but has a ton of experience.  Two epic battles against Alabama, huge comeback wins, some injuries, yet no defense behind him.  And, of course, a Heisman.  Texas A&M has a more formidable opponent than most people realize in the Duke Blue Devils in the Chick Fil-A Bowl in Atlanta.  Note that Duke has 10 wins and won the ACC Coastal Division.  With coach David Cutcliffe at the helm, the Blue Devils will be innovative on offense and test the porous Aggies defense.  But Manziel, with a month to heal from some bumps and bruises he had late in the season, should be able to answer.  At a point spread of fewer than two TDs, I take the Aggies here, behind Manziel.  The Chick Fil-A bowl is used to big crowds because of its geography near the ACC and SEC participants, it will be interesting to see if Duke travels for a bowl game, and if Texas A&M fans (a bit further than a Georgia or Auburn or South Carolina) storm Atlanta to see their QB play his final game (presuming he turns pro).

A.J. McCarron has done just about nothing but win his entire career at Alabama as he currently sits at 36-3 as a starter.  As the Heisman runner-up, he'll wrap up his career in the Sugar Bowl against the Oklahoma Sooners.  A leader like he is just the guy to help the Tide rebound from their only loss of the season and easily Roll over the Sooners.  As stated above, take Alabama and give the points.

Northern Illinois could also qualify as a team disappointed in their bowl destination.  Having dropped the MAC Championship Game, instead of getting the Big 12 Champion Baylor Bears in Glendale, they'll draw a tough Utah State squad in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego.  The game is a near Pick'em, but I'm putting my faith in the Heisman finalist Lynch to put his team on his back and rebound from their only regular season loss.  Take them straight up (near pick'em anyway).

4. My Conference is better than yours!

Pundits usually use the Bowl season as their litmus test for conference strength. It's not quite as easy as wins and losses, but you certianly want to know which conferences led to teams with records not indicative of a potential record in other conference.  Here we look at the SEC, Big 12, and ACC and how they stack up.

The Big 12 had a down year.  Last year they had nine bowl teams (out of ten), this year only six, and a couple are suspect (I'm talking about you Texas Tech and Kansas State).  TCU, West Virginia, and Iowa State took huge steps back.  The conference has a very tough draw, with their champion Baylor facing the fifth best opponent (out of six) per the final BCS standings (UCF, #15).  They also face #3 Alabama, #8 Missouri, #10 Oregon, and #14 Arizona State (unranked Michigan the other).  All are double digit underdogs except Oklahoma State facing Missouri in the Cotton Bowl.  The former Big 12 (and Big 8) rivals are familiar with each other and will be out to prove conference strength.  At the end of the day, Oklahoma State didn't play as tough a schedule as Missouri and will likely get exposed.  At a near pick'em, take the Missouri Tigers.  The Big 12 has only won one Cotton Bowl against the SEC in the last nine contests, and that was no team other than Missouri.

The SEC usually gets to best of the Big 12, this trend is likely to continue
The SEC probably was a little weaker than expected (sky high expectations, but still).  With Florida, Georgia, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, and LSU not reaching preseason expectations.  That, and the combined conference record of 2-22 for doormats Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee and it wasn't as hard for teams like South Carolina and Missouri to emerge as the beasts of the East.  An intriguing matchup is Vanderbilt Commodors vs. Houston Cougars in the BBVA Compass Bowl; how does a 4-4 Commodore team (SEC tested) without their starting QB match up with a 5-3 AAC opponent in Houston?  Houston hung tough with teams like BYU, UCF, Cincinnati, and Louisville in close losses.  They might have a surprise for Vandy, I'm picking the Cougars straight up (+120).  The last time we saw the Cougars in postseason action they beat Penn State so they're not intimidated by higher profile foes.

The ACC is finally looking like a conference worthy of the same conversation as the SEC, Big 12, Big 10, or Pac 12.  Mostly considered the 5th out of those in the last decade (no title game appearances in forever and very few BCS wins).  We'll get to the title game (and FSU) in a minute, I touched on expected Clemson success and Duke challenges above.  Another bellwether game is Georgia Tech against Ole Miss in the Music City Bowl.  Georgia Tech can't beat an SEC team to save their lives.  Georgia Tech was 5-3 in the ACC, Ole Miss 3-5 in the SEC.  Vegas calls it a 3 point favorite for Ole Miss.  I think they handle Georgia Tech with ease, book this one for the Rebels and give the 3 points.

5. I recognize these people, they are my fans!

Bowl games are always likely to try to pull a local team in to guarantee some ticket sales and keep up local interest.  An example where this didn't happen was the Houston Bowl, featuring Minnesota and Syracuse (sellout unlikely).  Where it did work well, was the Texas Longhorns playing within 100 miles of campus in San Antonio, the North Carolina Tar Heels playing in state at Charlotte, and Rutgers playing at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York.

Mack Brown is 2-0 in Alamo Bowls will he finish his
Longhorn coaching career undefeated in SA?
The Texas Longhorns play at the Alamo Bowl for the second straight year.  For the third straight year, they come into their bowl game at 8-4 or 7-5.  This is not their expected success, and as a result Mack Brown is stepping down after 16 seasons.  As mentioned above, Oregon has a lot of motivation questions but way more talent than the Longhorns.  At the end of the day, as mentioned above, there are too many non-football factors to play.  But expect more orange on the River Walk than green.

North Carolina is one of the hotter teams in college football.  They went 5-1 after October 17 with just a narrow defeat to Coastal Division Champion (and arch rival) Duke Blue Devils.  They'll face a Cincinnati Bearcats team in the Belk Bowl that is good, but not that great.  Carolina scores a lot of points and is from a better conference and will win this one with ease.  As mild 2 point favorites, give the points and chuckle that bettors are scared off  by a 6-6 record (all losses were to bowl teams).

Notre Dame could easily qualify as a team that could say "I thought we would go somewhere warm this winter, why are we in New York City?"  But the Fighting Irish love big city games, like their upcoming matchup vs. Boston College at Fenway Park.  Brian Kelly is a great motivator coach and will certainly have his team up.  Across the field will be the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, just a short 50 miles and a tunnel drive from their Piscataway , NJ.  Since Notre Dame has a national following (not to mention a strong Catholic population in greater New York) there isn't that much of a home field advantage.  In fact, it might be more 50/50 by the time the dust settles.  It's 2 TDs for a point spread, I take the superior talented Irish.  My only concern is that Notre Dame frequently plays down to inferior opponents, but Rutgers really isn't that good.

6. Who is my coach?

Part of the bowl season is the fact that some programs have coaches that have left their program, others fired theirs because the bowl they are in isn't enough.  We've covered Texas enough, but Boise State, Washington, and Bowling Green have coaching shifts of this kind.  Obviously Southern California falls in this category, but is playing their game as I write this.

'Tis the season for introductions of new head coaches
(Petersen), bowl game of current team be damned
Boise State head coach Chris Petersen has moved on to coach Washington, (whose coach moved onto USC).  They'll bring back former offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin (most recently head coach at Arkansas State) but in the meantime have a manageable draw in the Hawaii Bowl against Oregon State (who endured a season in which they had a very tough schedule and lost most games they were supposed to lose).  Boise State is a system.  It has had good coaches, but the system and program gets them by.  I'm not sold on Oregon State, who hasn't won since October 19 in facing a gauntlet of Pac 12 powerhouses the second half of the season.  Oddly, Oregon State is giving points here, probably because of their effort against the Oregon Ducks.  Boise State loves playing bigger programs and will be focused, head coach or not.  Take the Broncos straight up at +130.

Washington Huskies are a good 8-4 team in a very good conference.  Losses were to outstanding teams as they will face BYU in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.  As an Independent, BYU played a very solid schedule, including Notre Dame, Texas, Boise State, Wisconsin, and Georgia Tech (in all, eight bowl teams).  I feel like the Huskies aren't going to miss a beat without their coach and have a bright future with the Petersen hire.   I'm taking the Huskies and giving the 3 to 3.5 points.

Bowling Green changed the entire landscape of the BCS with their upset win over the Northern Illinois Huskies to win the MAC (Oklahoma Sooners give thanks).  Their reward is a Little Caesar's Bowl matchup with ACC middling Pittsburgh Panthers.  Poor Pitt, many will think.  But then Bowling Green's head coach leaves for the ACC's Wake Forest and I'm not sure this team can win two straight big games.  Pittsburgh played 9 bowl teams, including wins against Notre Dame and Duke.  Their worst loss might be Navy, not bad.  I think Pitt plays inspired against a so-so Bowling Green squad.  At +175, I'm taking the Panthers straight up.

7. BCS Championship Game: Auburn Tigers (+250) vs. Florida State Seminoles (-8.5)

Auburn tries to keep Florida State from being the first
undefeated BCS Champ since themselves in 2010
So in all of the above, we didn't touch on the BCS Championship Game.  It turns out that teams that make the title game do not have coaching or QB issues, are playing in the exact bowl they want to be playing in, and in this case, nowhere near home.  Certainly conference strength and matchup has to be factored, but Florida State ran roughshod through the weaker ACC (closest game was 14 points) with barely a challenge while Auburn played a number of close games throughout the year plus lost one game by 14 points against a decent, but not outstanding LSU.  Both teams score a ton of points, it's Florida State's game to lose.  The recipe for Auburn to win is to get up early on Florida State (since they're not used to coming back, Auburn is).  Or get in a 4th quarter shootout, Auburn will believe it can win, Florida State and their freshman QB (albeit a Heisman winner Jameis Winston) might falter.  Plus the SEC consecutive title streak, there is something to it.  But I see FSU jumping out ahead and their defense is better than advertised.  Florida State 41, Auburn 28.  Give the points and take the Noles.

Here are the Top 5 "Best Bets":
Arizona State (-14) vs. Texas Tech
North Carolina (-2) vs. Cincinnati
Clemson (+115) vs. Ohio State
Missouri (PK) vs. Oklahoma State
Pittsburgh (+175) vs. Bowling Green

Here's wishing all college football fans a fun and relaxing bowl season! 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Sportsman of the Week Ending 12/15/2013

Video game numbers are supposed to be limited to video games, not the National Football League.  Don't tell that to Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles.  He went all Techmo Bowl Bo Jackson on the Oakland Raiders scoring 5 TD's in a laugher over their division rival.  When the video game went tilt, Charles had 5 TDs (1 rushing, 4 receiving), 195 yards receiving on 8 catches, 20 rushing yards on 8 carries.  Over 13 yards per touch as the Chiefs racked up 56 points on the hapless Raiders and clinched their first playoff berth since 2010, and might make their first Super Bowl since 1970.  For this effort, Charles wins the Longhorndave Sportsman of the Week!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Sportsman of the Week Ending 12/8/2013

An amazing finish to the 2013 college football season, and an amazing performance in what has become the marquee game on the first Saturday in December, the SEC Championship Game.  Auburn running back Tre Mason put his team on his back, and ran them all the way to the BCS Championship Game, the second in four years for the Auburn Tigers.  Mason gashed the Missouri Tigers for 304 yards and 4 TDs on the way to a video game-like 59-42 victory for Auburn. Remember when the SEC was all about defense? Well it ain't anymore, and LSU and Alabama are now playing catch up.  Congratulations Tre Mason, you are the Longhorndave Sportsman of the Week!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Sportsman of the Week Ending 12/1/2013

It's crunch time for the NFL, and there was no game bigger in the AFC than the Denver Broncos visiting rival Kansas City Chiefs.  As the winner had the inside track to a first round bye, the Broncos Eric Decker went all Jerry Rice on the Chiefs.  The 4th year pro hauled in eight passes, four of them for touchdowns and tallied 174 yards in a monster effort to push the Broncos in a commanding driver's seat in the AFC West and the AFC overall.  Decker was a big reason why, and the Longhorndave Sportsman of the Week!